McDonald’s Struggles With Unsustainable Straws

August 25, 2019
McDonald’s Struggles With Unsustainable Straws

Paper straws made their debut at McDonald’s in the U.K. and Ireland in June of 2018, in part because the British government plans to ban plastic straws next year.

Initially, customer complained about soggy paper straws that were hard to use, especially with milkshakes.  This led to a redesign and a thicker straw.  Ironically, because of their thickness, these new straws cannot currently be recycled by the company that processes McDonald’s paper cups.

U.K. customers use 1.8 million straws a day, and although the old plastic straws could be recycled, it will take time to develop an solution that keeps the paper ones out of the general waste bins.

Video Spotlight: Are straws ever eco-friendly or guilt free?

This post is based on the BBC article, McDonald’s Paper Straws Cannot Be Recycled, (no author given), August 5, 2019; the CNN article, McDonald’s new paper straws aren’t recyclable — but its axed plastic ones were, by Rob Picheta, August 5, 2019; and the YouTube video Are straws ever eco-friendly or guilt free?, by The Telegraph, August 6, 2019. Image source: Getty Images.

Discussion Questions:

1. Why are some consumers and the British government concerned with the use of plastic straws? How is the move towards paper straws at odds with environmental concerns?

Guidance: Many straws contain plastics like polypropylene and polystyrene.  If they are recycled, they can be turned into other useful products.  If they are not, they can take hundreds of years to decompose.  The switch to paper straws does mean less land fill from unrecycled plastic straws and fewer other hazards to wildlife or sea creatures that may be harmed by plastic products.  However, the move to paper may be premature, not only for McDonald’s, but for British governmental policy as well if viable, recyclable alternatives do not currently exist.  In addition, large numbers of trees must obviously be used to take the place of plastic straws, raising a new and different set of environmental concerns.

2. What relationship exists between product design and environmental concerns like recycling?

Guidance: While it may be considered good from an ethical standpoint to look for ways to move away from plastics, businesses also have to consider the impact alternate packaging may have on their customers.  If customers do not like the design of the new alternatives, such as paper straws, they may provide negative feedback and the company’s image and sales can be adversely affected.  When forced by either customer or governmental pressure to make moves that, from a design standpoint are not yet optimized, the business may just be creating a new set of problems for itself.

3. What other alternatives may exist to address this issue of straws for the many eateries that use them?

Guidance: Rather than looking at how to recycle straws, businesses can seek ways to avoid creating waste in the first place.  Value analysis might ask the question, “Do we really need a straw at all?”  Some businesses are trying out cups with lids that have a hole in the top, similar to a coffee cup lid, to hold back the ice without requiring a straw.

Another simpler, solution is proposed by Friends of the Earth’s Julian Kirby: “Lips have been a waste-free alternative to straws for millions of years.”


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